Few guitarists have had as much impact on fingerstyle folk and blues guitar as Elizabeth Cotten (1893–1987), the singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, David Bromberg, the Grateful Dead, and many others. Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Cotten grew up in a musical family. She started off on her brother’s banjo and then scraped up enough money to buy her first guitar, a $3.75 Sears & Roebuck model, which, being left-handed, she played upside down. Cotten wrote her first songs, including “Freight Train,” as a child, but gave up playing when she married and had children. She would have remained unknown if not for moving to Washington, D.C., where she found herself in the employ of the folk-singing Seeger family (Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger), who encouraged her to reconnect with the guitar. Cotten was in her 60s when she began her recording and performing career.
The folk crowd drew inspiration from Cotten’s songs in standard tuning, like “Freight Train” and “Mama, Your Papa Loves You,” as well as her instrumentals in alternate tunings, like “Spanish Flang Dang” (in open G) and “Vastapol” (open D).
Here’s a look at some of the ideas and phrases that Libba, as she was nicknamed, would play in open G and D.
To get into open G, also known as Spanish tuning, lower strings 1 and 6 down a step, to D, and string 5 down a step, to G. Cotten’s “Spanish Flang Dang” serves as a good introduction to this tuning, as the fretting-hand fingerings are straightforward, with only three chords (G, C and D7), all shown in Ex. 1 .
Libba had an idiosyncratic picking hand, playing bass notes with her index finger and melody notes with her thumb (her alternating bass lines are known as Cotten Picking). Unless you’re also playing upside down, you can use the more conventional picking pattern shown on the G chord in Ex. 2 and on D7 in Ex. 3: Pick the bass notes with your thumb and the notes on strings 1, 2, and 3 with your ring (a), middle (m), and index (i) finger, respectively. But feel free to use any other fingerpicking pattern that works for you.
In “Spanish Flang Dang,” most of the melodic movement occurs on the first string during the G-chord sequences. Ex. 4 combines selected notes from the G-major scale (G A B C D E F#) with the fingerpicking pattern from the previous examples. As for your fretting hand, play the fifth-fret G with your second finger, the seventh-fret A with your fourth finger, and the fourth-fret F# with your first finger.
Some of Cotten’s more interesting touches came from her variations in picking and phrasing, like those seen in Exs. 5a and 5b. Both figures start with a G chord that’s rolled quickly, from lowest note to highest, with the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. But while Ex. 5a follows the roll with a slide, Ex. 5b uses a hammer-on.
Ex. 6 shows some transitions through the IV (C) and V (D) chords. Drag your thumb (p) through the eighth-note sequences and then return to a normal fingerpicking pattern for the quarter-note measures. In Ex. 7, apply a roll to the V chord, which transitions back to the I (G).
Now try some ideas in open-D tuning (tuned low to high: D A D FG A D) taken from her popular song “Vastapol.” To get into open D from open G, raise string 5 up a step, to A; lower string 3 a half step, to F#; and lower string 2 a step, to B.
In performance, Cotten almost always varied her phrasing, yet she followed the basic chord structure. In the key of D major, she might have started out on the IV chord (C), like in Ex. 8. Notice that the G chord has the third, B, in the bass, as this note is easier to finger in open position than the root, which is on string 6, fret 5.
Ex. 9 shows a variation that uses a slide from E to F#, making for a quicker transition back to the D chord. Use your second finger for fretting both the slide and the following hammer-on. The hammer-on-and-slide motif is duplicated in Ex. 10, this time going from the V chord (A7) to the I.
Cotten sometimes played “Vastapol” with a center section similar to Ex. 11. The grace-note slides and hammer-ons here create an infectious groove. Play the slides and hammer-ons with your second finger.
In a separate verse of “Vastapol,” for the I chord, Cotten sometimes used a phrase like Ex. 12, featuring a common blues motif: a bend on string 2, paired with a stationary note on string 1. Fret the bends with your second finger, so that your other fingers are free to cover the subsequent notes on string 1. Check your intonation by playing the ninth-fret F# on string 2 and listening carefully to the pitch. Then bend the note at the eighth-fret F up a half step, making sure to accurately hit the F#.
In Ex. 13, you’ll find my tune “Libba-ration,” inspired by “Vastapol.” “Vastapol” is loosely built on 24-bar verses consisting of three eight-bar sections. Since Cotten’s playing was somewhat improvisational and could change from performance to performance, I have taken some liberty with the structure. Instead of three eight-bar sections I’ve created one four-bar section and two-eight bar sections.
The first four bars are all built on the I chord. This section takes one of the motifs from “Vastapol” and expands on it with melody notes at frets 10 and 9 on the first string. The next eight-bar section travels back and forth between the IV (G) and I (D) chords. It has a call-and-response flavor with the same melodic component played underneath the alternating bass for each chord.
The last eight-bar section echoes the previous eight bars but travels back and forth between the V (A7) and I (D) chords. Slurs—bends, pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides—are integral to the flavor of this piece.
You can pick any of the phrases from “Libba-ration” and use them as exercises for perfecting your technique.
Hammer-ons that land on the beat with a bass note being played at the same time can be tricky because the heavier-sounding bass notes can swallow up the hammered-on notes. Resist the urge to separate the hammer-on from the bass. In measure 5 of “Libba-ration,” for example, isolate the first two beats and practice them until you’ve got the timing correct.
Being a self-taught guitarist who played the guitar upside down certainly must have been a challenge for Elizabeth Cotten. You can take inspiration from her sheer will to learn the instrument. And—even without reversing the order of your stings—you can learn a lot by trying to capture Cotten’s sound, phrasing, and dynamic approach to the guitar.
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